There's an awful lot of shouting these days at the Schoenfeld Theatre, where Arthur Miller's early melodrama "All My Sons" opened last night in a powerfully acted revival.
A starry cast has been assembled to yell their lungs out, including the distinguished John Lithgow and, in her Broadway debut, Katie Holmes, known in her (less than) private life as Mrs. Tom Cruise.
The fault lies not with them but with the play. Given the doings on Wall Street today, its underlying theme of the selfishness, greed and general chicanery of big business should give "All My Sons" a certain topicality. But it's so sludged in the aftermath of World War II, it even misses out on that.
It's a period piece that starts in a whirlwind and ends with a gunshot, with enough hurlyburly in between to fill a cartload of Greek tragedy.
When we first meet Joe Keller (Lithgow), he's relaxing in his yard, making small talk with kids and cronies.
But beneath the rolling green lawn run the tides of disaster. Keller has made a fortune in the war by selling defective parts to the Air Force, escaping a jail sentence only by making his junior partner and friend the fall guy.
The story unravels with one discovery after another. Joe's wife, Kate (Dianne Wiest), insists on believing that their son Larry, an Air Force flier, is still alive, though he's been missing in action for three years.
Meanwhile, their other son, Chris (Patrick Wilson), is in love with Larry's fiancée, Ann Deever (a coltish Holmes), whom he hopes to marry. This shaky house of cards soon comes tumbling down, and the Kellers' world implodes.
Simon McBurney's staging is unexpectedly effective in its post-modern way - with projections and a cast that moves its own chairs on- and offstage - but too much of the acting is two-dimensional, at best.
Lithgow starts in a sunny, benign fashion, but eventually finds himself screeching alongside Holmes, looking tough under a glossy wig, and the all-American Wilson.
In all of this emotional clutter, the finest performance comes from Wiest, a silent pool of grief in a most touching portrayal of woe.
There are four names above the title in the ads for the baleful new Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Three of them are reasonably well known to regular theater- and moviegoers (John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Patrick Wilson), and one is very well known to readers of celebrity tabloids (Katie Holmes). But don’t be misled into thinking that these high-profile performers are the stars of the show.
Though his face is never seen in the production that opened Thursday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, the British director Simon McBurney might as well be downstage center at all times, stealing each and every scene from his human props. Mr. McBurney, justly celebrated for his brilliant work as the leader of the experimental London company Complicite, is a conceptual theater artist who has never had much use for straightforward, naturalistic acting. And woe betide the thespian who cannot dance to this godlike auteur’s music.
You might wonder why I’m talking like a half-baked imitation of classic tragedy. It is not, as it happens, an inappropriate tone for discussing this intriguing but disconnected interpretation of the 1947 play that made Miller famous. Mr. McBurney has staged Miller’s tale of a self-deluding, guilt-crippled American family with the ritualistic formality and sense of inexorability of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Would that he could summon the primal power associated with those ancients.
It’s not as if Arthur Miller and Greek tragedy have never been seen in the same sentence before. On the contrary, assessing this dramatist’s works according to Aristotle’s “Poetics” has been the province of high school English students as well as scholars and critics since Miller’s 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” (first published in The New York Times), in which he defended the average Joe’s potential as a character of self-sacrificing heroism.
But to bring out this aspect of the play as literally as Mr. McBurney does is to underline not only what’s obvious but also what’s awkward in a work that relies heavily on mechanical plotting and bald speechifying. And to transform its characters into archetypal puppets of destiny is to deprive actors of the chance to create richly human portraits.
I have seen such portraiture in revivals of “All My Sons” from the Roundabout Theater Company (in 1997) and in particular at the National Theater in London (in 2000), productions that had much of the audience in tears. The preview performance I saw of this one left me stone cold, despite some electric moments from a very fine Mr. Lithgow and Mr. Wilson. The very different leading actresses — the stage veteran Ms. Wiest and the neophyte Ms. Holmes, in her Broadway debut — are sad casualties of Mr. McBurney’s high-concept approach. (My companion at the theater, finding herself dry-eyed at the final curtain, asked, “Is there something wrong with my emotional acuity?”)
It’s understandable that producers would think this is an auspicious time to revive “All My Sons,” a heartfelt condemnation of capitalist greed and its concomitant lack of moral responsibility. The plot centers on Joe Keller (Mr. Lithgow), a businessman whose factory was responsible for sending faulty airplane parts overseas, leading to the deaths of American servicemen during World War II. It was Joe’s partner who went to prison for the crime, and now the jailed man’s daughter, Ann Deever (Ms. Holmes), has returned to visit the Kellers.
Once engaged to Joe’s younger son, Larry, a pilot who had gone missing several years earlier on a mission, Ann has been corresponding with Larry’s brother, Chris (Mr. Wilson), and it looks as if a new romance is blooming. This is not to the liking of Kate Keller (Ms. Wiest), who refuses to concede the possibility that Larry is dead. It isn’t just a mother’s possessive love that has brought her to this state of fanatical denial; there are more far-reaching reasons, which emerge in a climactic night of reckoning.
In any production of “All My Sons” a certain unease will be evident from the beginning. But the play’s force lies in Miller’s portrayal of how its characters come to identify and reckon with the sources of this unease, as what initially appears as a sunny small-town idyll turns dark and stormy.
Mr. McBurney’s production, which consistently highlights the implicit in thick strokes, begins with the cast filing onto the set. An actor (Mr. Lithgow) announces the title and author of the play and reads from the script’s directions, à la the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
Mr. McBurney sustains this particular distancing device by having the ensemble members sit, within our view, on the sidelines. The production has other ways of reminding us that what we’re watching is a sort of mythic (and artificial) theatrical rite. Tom Pye’s set is a rectangle of green, green grass, with a screen door in the middle, behind which hovers a ghostly Magritte-like image of a house.
Words announcing changes of scene are projected, as is video footage portraying factory assembly lines, soldiers at war and, for the conclusion, that vast sea of humanity (embodied by a contemporary street crowd) whom we must acknowledge as our responsibility. (The projection design is by Finn Ross for Mesmer.)
The leading performers make their entrances and exits glacially, in robotic profile, across the back of the stage. When they speak, they often find themselves competing with anxious, portentous music, which might as well be a floating road sign marked “Doom Ahead.”
Finding a stylized acting approach that matches the dark-gray atmosphere isn’t easy, and few of the cast members succeed. Most of them appear to have been encouraged to go for the sinister, whether the scene asks for it or not. Damian Young, as the Kellers’ neighbor, a disenchanted doctor, and Christian Camargo, as Ann’s angry brother, deliver their big monologues with the half-mad intensity of supporting players in a Vincent Price movie.
Ms. Wiest assumes a glazed demeanor and reproachful stare, becoming Joe’s conscience incarnate or a Cassandra according to Norman Rockwell. (She drops her g’s, Sarah Palin style, to convey Kate’s hometown folksiness.) And while Ann is supposed to arrive at the Keller household with high hopes and good intentions, Ms. Holmes delivers most of her lines with meaningful asperity, italicizing every word. This Ann is straight from the school of the Erinyes (those avenging furies from Greek mythology), and I didn’t believe for a second that she really loved the honorable, naïve Chris.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Lithgow, actors of strong and confident naturalism, come off better, especially in their scenes with each other. In Joe and Chris’s big Oedipal showdown in the second act, these actors powerfully evoke those painful moments when a family quarrel can feel like an earthquake.
It’s the only scene where Mr. McBurney’s shaping concept feels fully justified, where you see how the production might have worked. Mostly this vaunting interpretation falls into that same limbo between intention and execution where so many of Miller’s baffled American souls find themselves.
Ever since word got out that Katie Holmes would appear in a revival of All My Sons (* * 1/2 out of four), the blogosphere has been buzzing. Celebrity junkies who probably haven't thought about Arthur Miller since reading the CliffsNotes for Death of a Salesman in high school are dying to know how Mrs. Tom Cruise will fare in her Broadway debut.
So let's get this out of the way: In Sons, which opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Holmes does not a) forget her lines, b) get naked (as the last Mrs. Cruise did in her Broadway debut), c) look fat in her costumes or d) toss out non sequiturs that seem like references to Scientology.
That's not to say Holmes' performance is a revelation. At best, she exhibits a girlish exuberance that could serve her well in certain stage roles, provided she finds a director who can ease her obvious self-consciousness and get her to focus on the often-intricate process of character development.
Sadly, Simon McBurney, who helms this production, is not that director. McBurney and his creative team's approach to Miller's morality tale isn't big on subtlety. Before the first act, an operatic windstorm brings down a symbolically ripe tree. Sound designers Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Downing provide an undercurrent of ominous music that seems to swell whenever things get really tense, and stark projected images further embellish the dialogue.
But the accomplished actors with whom Holmes shares top billing are better at tempering dramatic gestures with nuance, and McBurney nurtures their sensitive rapport. John Lithgow is painfully convincing as Joe Keller, a businessman haunted by the disappearance of his son in World War II and a possibly related professional transgression.
The marvelous Dianne Wiest offers a witty, heartbreaking portrait of Joe's tortured wife, Kate, who has her own talent for denial. Patrick Wilson movingly traces the disillusionment of their surviving son, Chris, who shares his missing brother's affection for the daughter of Joe's former colleague.
When Holmes introduces that young woman, Ann Deever, she is intriguingly vital, a breath of fresh air in the Kellers' stifled lives. But as Ann's experience evolves and her emotions shift, Holmes' tone doesn't. Her initial poise begins to seem strained and her relentlessly energetic line readings strangely flat — even when she screams them out, as she does quite jarringly at one point.
Pairing Arthur Miller's probing social realism with Brit director Simon McBurney's multidisciplinary experimental approach was a gamble, but the payoff in "All My Sons" is considerable. The first Broadway revival of the playwright's work since his death in 2005, the production balances theatrical artifice with heightened emotion, seeding anxiety deep in the collective pit of the audience's stomach and then amplifying it steadily until the shattering final scene. Liberally mixing Brechtian presentation with cinematic flourishes, this is a commanding illustration of the power of theater and a searing drama of morality and conscience that has as much to say to America now as it did in 1947.
Back when "All My Sons" premiered, garnering Miller his first success, the play spoke to a nation emerging from war and eyeing prosperity while still shaking off the memory of economic depression. The country now is heading more or less in the reverse direction -- the war in Iraq grinds slowly on toward a hazy resolution, the fallout from unchecked greed has become apparent, and financial meltdown has made recession loom large and loud. Miller was tapping into a mood of self-reflection, and, six decades later, it's almost bizarre that the play's connection to the reality of the times remains so strong.
From the moment the ensemble steps onto the stage -- led by John Lithgow as he welcomes the audience, introduces the play and sets the scene, followed by an attention-grabbing storm worthy of "King Lear" -- it's clear we're in forceful hands.
While this is very much a naturalistic American drama in the mid-20th century mold, Miller made no secret of his Greco-Ibsen influences. McBurney acknowledges those diverse traditions as well as more experimental forms. He shows us the tricks and mechanics of theater, uses film devices like underscoring and projections to intensify drama or foster evocative connections, and coaxes layered interpretations from the actors that embrace grandiose, melodramatic theatricality on the surface while scratching away underneath to uncover the characters' wounded humanity in painfully real terms.
There's no playing it safe here on any level, yet the complex approach feels organic -- every unconventional touch serves to break open the drama, not simply to embellish it. Some no doubt will find the treatment overwrought, but like it or not, this is far more interesting than another reverential remount.
At the center of the play's family conflict are Greek tragedy staples of guilt, culpability, grief, death and the timely issue of profiteering from war. Lithgow effectively plays against his patrician air as Joe Keller, an uneducated man from humble roots who has achieved middle-class comfort running a machine parts plant. But that well-being has come at a price. During WWII, he knowingly allowed defective aircraft engine cylinders to be shipped, allowing his partner to take the rap when 21 American pilots were killed as a result.
The gnawing question that drives the drama is whether or not Joe's family and neighbors are aware of his guilt. His wife Kate (Dianne Wiest) waits with tireless optimism for the return of her son Larry, declared missing in action three years earlier. His other son Chris (Patrick Wilson) has returned from the war and now plans to marry his brother's sweetheart, Ann (Katie Holmes), whose father was imprisoned over the airplane parts scandal.
Using only a clapboard rear wall with a screen door, a lawn, chairs and bits of chain-link fencing, plus the tree that's portentously felled in the opening storm, designer Tom Pye's minimalist set defines the untroubled veneer of middle-American suburbia with crisp simplicity. But the dark fissures in this world are etched by Paul Anderson's increasingly sepulchral lighting, by Christopher Shutt and Carolyn Dowling's brooding soundscape and by Finn Ross' insinuating projections.
When not directly involved in scenes, the cast sit on a visible line of chairs in the wings, adding the weight of silent witnesses to the Keller family's steady implosion and to the corruption of the American Dream. Watching the actors prepare for their entrances creates a sense of unsettling anticipation for their confrontations, and following their protracted exits allows those exchanges to continue resonating.
McBurney and cast orchestrate the friction, suspicion, admissions and eruptions of blame in dynamic fortissimo mode. Not only are the expected face-offs between father and son or husband and wife powerfully played, but the straight-talking pronouncements of outsiders -- notably Becky Ann Baker and Damian Young as the Kellers' neighbors, and Christian Camargo as Ann's brother -- are delivered with stinging precision. Even the most peripheral figures communicate a life beyond the text.
Lithgow's descent from jovial warmth to self-righteous defensiveness to crushed accountability is drawn in bold strokes. Wilson also does compelling work. The actor's wholesomeness and seemingly intrinsic honesty make his character's idealism ennobling rather than foolish (Chris has come back from the war a changed man, bitterly disappointed that America seems unchanged), and his physical clashes with his father are shockingly visceral. And in a tremendously moving performance of God-like judgment, compassion, rage and sorrow at human failings, Wiest makes Kate the drama's howling center.
While much of the advance media attention has focused on Holmes, she handles her role as death's messenger with neither distinction nor embarrassment. She lacks the technique to match her co-stars' depths, working hard at conveying purpose, gravity and a contradictory duality between innocence and sharpness. McBurney's non-naturalistic, onion-like approach calls for peeling back layers, and even if Holmes doesn't quite manage this, she projects an attractive modesty that makes her part of the ensemble, not an obtrusive bit of celebrity casting.
The only bothersome weakness is the choice to dissolve from the operatic final tableau to a projected image of a contemporary crowd scene, indicating a reluctance to trust the audience. Miller's still-cogent play and this emotionally charged production offer enough haunting reminders throughout of who and where we are as a country and a people, without the need for a closing visual assist.